Tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna

Annapurna range
Photo: Annapurna range (Giacomo Berardi, Unsplash)

I confess to be an inveterate obituary hawk. The ‘vet’ bit in inveterate is telling as my compulsion comes with the territory of the latter half of life.

I don’t scour obituary columns for names I know or like or love, or even for people whose behavior I despise, for (the bell) “it tolls for thee”. Obituaries pack the history of a whole life into a tiny capsule and occasionally one captures my attention so vividly I hunger to know more and feel sad to miss the subject’s acquaintance.

I never met Sunderlal Bahuguna and didn’t even know his name until he died from covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94. What drew me to his story by Hridayesh Joshi, a Mongabay journalist who knew him, was the transparent goodness of a life dedicated to caring for an environment that his people in the Himalayan foothills loved and needed to thrive.

As a bright and educated Indian, he gave up a potential career in parliamentary politics to serve his home district. As an early environmentalist he had a great impact nationally, even internationally, yet acclaim didn’t go to his head. He remained modest and credited much of his achievement to his wife.

As a young man he became a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, which says much about his character and lifestyle. He went on long marches, fasted to make public protest, fought against ‘untouchability’, and practiced non-violent activism against political and commercial oppressors of his people and the forest.

For many years he led the Chipko movement against logging companies whose depredations threatened fragile ecosystems around local communities. He organized protests against the Tehri Dam project (largest in India) for displacing of thousands of people from homes and affecting a watershed feeding the sacred Ganges.

The Chipko movement began in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, a famous destination for Hindu pilgrims and site of the 1968 Beatles Ashram. It started when local women opposed loggers by literally hugging trees (Chipko=hugging). The expression tree-hugger is often pejorative in the West, but only ignorance of its solemn history covers that shame.

Three centuries ago, hundreds of Bishnoi people, most of them women, obstinately resisted the felling of trees in their district to clear land for a new palace. They were massacred. In the end, the maharaja relented and canceled the project. The martyrs helped to inspire a modern movement of forest guardians that wins more sympathy by the year.

In his later years, Bahuguna-ji looked like a brown Santa Claus, a genial figure of gentle temperament. He practiced what he preached by living simply and sustainably, even giving up a rice diet because paddy fields use a lot of water.

We may wonder how a modest exterior with little worldly ambition can make a difference today, though he didn’t achieve all his goals (the Tehri Dam). But he had a facility for mingling care for human welfare with respect for what science knows, driven by a great fire of determination in his heart.

A life for rich pickings by an obituary hawk.

Next Post: American Goldfinch

A Day in Dharavi

That day slept in deep memory until Dharavi appeared in news reports about the threat of COVID-19. It wasn’t a Westerner’s curiosity about the plight of poor people that brought me in 2003 after an engagement in Mumbai; it was an introduction to a medical practitioner who worked in the slum. She cared for patients of all kinds, but after flooding from the monsoon she was treating dengue virus. I came with questions.

Mumbai, India
Not a million miles from Dharavi

A first visit to India is an overpowering experience. The immense crowds, poverty, religious spirit, stoicism, heat, and intense colors.

Dharavi squats between arteries of the rail network. As a visitor, I felt the alien I was, but the stares I received, mostly from teenagers in t-shirts, were invariably friendly and I never felt as threatened as in some American inner cities. It’s a community of many religions and none, so creed is less likely to explain low crime than the narrow wealth gap compared to our cities. A millionaire in Dharavi would be incongruous.

The biggest slum in Asia with half a million people crammed in a square mile wasn’t on the tourist trail then, although I hear of tours for inquisitive trekkers today, maybe encouraged by Slumdog Millionaire earning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It would be a naff voyeur who came to photograph poverty, and some tour companies observe a strict ethical code.

Dharavi defies common notions of slum-living. It’s true that people live cheek by jowl in concrete homes under corrugated roofs beside narrow passageways for noisy streams of pedestrians and auto rickshaws. Overhead there is a tangle of power lines that would look alarming to engineers, polluted waterways horrify environmentalists, and piles of trash condemned by public health departments at home. There is an odor in the air, but it’s not fetid. Some children go barefoot, but most residents take pride in personal appearance and sloth is foreign to them. A beehive is an apt metaphor for the industry inside the maze. There are potteries, tanneries, tailors, shoemakers, food stalls, and recycling enterprises. Some lawyers and doctors reside there, including the one I visited. It is a vibrant community.

Above all, the crush of humanity was the most lasting memory. It’s hard to imagine how people can keep a safe social distance to avoid infection with the coronavirus or find access to facilities for frequent washing of hands. The risk of contagion is acute, and a reminder of the thousands who died of plague there in the 1890s. Remember Dharavi and places like it.

 

Jean Purdy_Remembering a Pioneer

Some of the most absorbing stories I ever read were from historians and biographers when they bring to light the lives of forgotten pioneers and heroes. On the rare occasions my writing and research can cast a light on a past life I feel moved by the discovery and heavy with responsibility. I imagine archeologists feel likewise when excavating a pile of old bones in some forgotten tomb if they unexpectedly uncover real treasure— buried evidence to name the bones and flesh them with a notable life story.

These thoughts stirred when I walked the dogs on Jamestown Island. I stopped to chat with a group of archeologists working on the burial site of the first African American woman brought to North America. “Angela” died around 1625, but their work is making her better known than she ever was in her lifetime.

Margot Lee Shetterly has been excavating recent history for her book Hidden Figures, which is now a Hollywood movie. She tells the story of African-American women mathematicians who made major contributions to the NASA space program, although, sadly, only one of the trio lived to enjoy the belated public acclaim.

Young Jean

Stories like these have encouraged me to try to give people I admire the dash of immortality that a story in print offers.  I wrote a short biography of an Englishwoman called Jean Purdy in last month’s issue of the journal Human Fertility. She died at the age of 39 in 1985, but never lived to see how the struggles of her tiny research team have blossomed from a breakthrough to a medical revolution that is creating millions of families with IVF babies. The article is free online here.

 

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